Compassion. Even Now.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
8 min readApr 26, 2024

Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Pesach
Day 203 since October 7th

Compassion. Even Now.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Pesach, Day 203 since October 7th.

On Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed, in the middle of Pesach, we read a portion ordinarily read in the weekly cycle of Exodus. But it is a very powerful and specific voice that we introduce into the flow of Passover, worthy of our attention, especially now, in the midst of such upheaval in the Jewish world, in Israel, in Gaza, on campuses, in our hearts.

The Torah reading is of a section where Moses just can’t take it anymore. That might feel familiar. Moses is at his breaking point. The people are rebelling just months after liberation, God is getting angry, and it seems clear, even in the inception of this Freedom Journey that things will fall apart. Just before this moment, God has said to Moses, “Get out of My way. I’m going to destroy them all and start again with you, (Ex. 32:10)” something that God has done a few times previous to Moses with different ancestors.

(There is a conversation a person of faith eventually has with God about this pattern; that’s what prayer is about. Prayer is not only about praise; it’s also about shock, sometimes anger and doubt. There is a place for disbelief in Judaism; it’s very important to affirm this.)

Responding to God’s threat, Moses stands in the breach and says to God, “…Turn from Your blazing anger! (32:12)” How important it is to see the role of a human being using their voice to scream at a sometimes-harsh universe, “Stop! It’s not supposed to be like this. You’re not supposed to be like this. That’s not what the created world is supposed to be. Our children deserve better.”

Once God relents (32:14), Moses requires still more and says, “Show me who You are. Make sense of this to me. Show me your glory. (33:18)” To which God responds, “No. You can’t see Me. No person can. That’s not how this works. It’s not what I am. It’s not what you are. You can’t see Eternity. No person can see everything. No human being can live with that. (33:20)”

Before we move forward in the story, let us attempt to identify both with Moses (the need to know why things are the way they are, especially now), and let us also have some compassion for God (the deepest awareness that life can often be exceedingly hard). Poor God, watching us, witnessing what we are willing to do to each other. Who in this story does not deserve our compassion?

Moses says, “Just show me,” and God says, “I cannot show you My whole Self, but I will show you my wake. (33:19)” Have you ever seen the wind? You haven’t. We can’t actually see the wind; what we see is the way the breeze moves the branch. We see the wake of God, but we don’t see God. And that’s what God says to Moses: “I’ll put you in the cleft of this rock, and I will pass my goodness before you, and you will see my wake.”

It’s a beautiful moment, and when God passes before Moshe, God self-reveals with holy language, (chanted repeatedly on the high holidays), “God, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. (34:6–7) This is gorgeous, suffused with Divine compassion and mercy.

How powerful to read these verses the Shabbat of Passover, intertwining our liberation narrative with compassion. The journey of freedom that begins with the first and second seders continues with the amplification of the aspect of God that is compassion.

And there’s more, something increasingly complicated. When we chant this liturgically, we end with, “…God will cleanse us of iniquity.” But the verse in the Torah does not stop there. The verse concludes, “…not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” We should be aware of how radical the action of prayer is, something our prayerbooks do that the Torah doesn’t. In the Torah, God reveals Godself through the list of the 13 attributes (where our prayer ends) and then continues, with God holding generations guilty for the sins of their parents. (We read later in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, that we do not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents. A conversation for another time.)

Why am I sharing all this right now? First of all, because it’s beautiful, it’s ours, and it’s interesting. But I want to share a midrash about how wonderful and great and miraculous leaders can be. When God continues this revelation and starts implicating the third generation, and the fourth generation, “Will I hold them responsible?” Legend has it that Moses throws himself down on the floor and cuts God off, says, “Stop, stop! Justice looks like this; it doesn’t have to look like that.”

And the rabbis follow that tradition of Moses when it comes to the way that we daven, the way that we pray. We recite the 13 attributes, but we stop before the increasingly punitive aspects of God’s justice are uttered. This is what it means to stand in the breach and to say, “It doesn’t have to be like that.” It takes enormous courage to stand in front of eternity and say, “It doesn’t have to be like that; we can be more. We can embody God’s mercy and compassion more.”

I know that we are fighting terrible things right now. Our children, our students are facing terrible things. Our babies, our grandparents remain in darkness. For 202 days, we’ve all faced these horrors. But I think it’s important for us to hold onto the moments that are possible, that embody rachamim, mercy. I want to tell you of one such moment yesterday. It moved me beyond words. Thanks to the great work of UJA, I have the privilege of visiting different firms, companies, businesses, and corporations, teaching Torah. Pesach is a big moment where we get invited in a lot.

Yesterday, I was at Citigroup headquarters down on Wall Street with a group that I have taught in the past. But this year, instead of it being the group of Jews coming together for a kosher, from Passover catered lunch and words of Torah, which is lovely, yesterday’s gathering was part of a wider Human Resources program. There were about 200 people gathered to learn Torah, and it included Jews, Christians, Muslims, and just people who wanted to be part of a diversity culture in their corporate family. And then we had satellite link-ups with São Paulo, London, Texas, Miami, and Tel Aviv. There were about 500 people together. And I could see a group of Muslim employees who were there to learn. And it turns out the Jews went to the Iftar program about a month ago that was run by HR for them, and the Muslims came to the Passover program.

I was already planning on talking about the themes of Pesach and talking about the particular and the universal, how our tribal liberation story is meant to be shared, and it is meant to be a model for what it is to see human dignity as a prerequisite to existence. “I cannot be free if you are not free.” And of course, as part of this, I emphasized during the Seder where we take the drops of grape juice or wine out of our cups and then we make a blessing. We have sympathy and love and care and compassion even for those who would hurt us, because after all, the modern term for what the Egyptians were to the Israelites is not only taskmaster, it’s “terrorist.” But even for them, we reduce our cup because the image of God is the image of God, without exception. The Seder doesn’t let us off the hook; we should not let ourselves off the hook either.

I talked about my tears, our necessary tears, because we are meant to be compassionate, just as God is compassionate, even then, even now. And that I cry for everyone, civilians in Gaza, Israeli babies, Jewish students, all of us. Everyone deserves dignity. Who doesn’t? I spoke about this for a while. Then when I was done, a bunch of people came up to say hi, there was one employee who came up to me, to me very emotional and said, “I want to thank you for what you said. I’m a Muslim woman; I work here. I have family in Gaza. I’ve lost seven of my family members, and I’m really appreciative of what Passover means. I didn’t understand that.” She was crying, telling me about her family, and I cried with her. I’d already spoken about my family; now I was crying for her family, as we should.

And I asked her if it was okay to hug her, and we hugged each other. We just stood there for a few minutes at Citigroup, and we hugged each other. It didn’t end the problem, but it was a moment. It was a moment because we can hug each other there.

There are some moments where we can’t, but why would we dare miss this? The Torah reading that we will share tomorrow is all about compassion. Yes, in order to become free, sometimes you have to fight. In order to protect your children, sometimes you have to fight. In order to get our family back, sometimes we have to fight. But it is so important to not miss these moments of shared humanity, even now.

I don’t let this change my ferocious defense of our homeland. Of course not. But I wish for my own heart to be warm and soft and loving. There is more than enough pain to go around. There are more than enough tears. Yes, we’re going to have to continue to fight. But if we could find a few more moments like these of shared humanity, I bless us with the ability to let this part of God in again, a little bit of softness, a little bit of compassion, a little bit of love, a little bit. It’s good for us. It’s good for us to feel that part of our heart again. It’s good.

And we need it. That compassion is who we are; that ferociousness is also who we are. But I should never let my heart be like this beautiful teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe. And with that, we’ll close.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught, “Why does the Torah say around the paragraph of the Shema, ‘Place these words on your heart’? This is my heart. Why does it say ‘take these words,’ these holy words, ‘and place them on your heart’? If you really want someone to internalize a message, you don’t say ‘on your heart’; you would say ‘place them in your heart.’” And he says this beautiful thing, beautiful. He says, “There are times where our heart is actually like this, and if I tell you to put it in your heart, it’s just going to bounce off and go away. So God tells us instead,” says the Kotzker, “to take these words and place them on your heart, because at some point, your heart will do this, and more gentle words of love will have a place to go.”

I bless us all to get a little bit more quiet for a minute. Let’s see how that works.